Clothes Make the Man (or Woman):
Techwear and character in scifi
Earlier this year I was listening to an interview with Jeremy Brenner, star of The Hurt Locker (you know – that film which beat out Avatar for the Best Picture Oscar), and something he said about preparing for his role reminded me of something I’ve noticed in a lot of scifi. Brenner plays a staff sergeant in charge of a bomb squad unit in Iraq. He spends a good part of the movie inside a protective Kevlar suit, so he can get up close to analyze explosives and defuse them. The host, Terry Gross, asked him how he was able to get into the frame of mind of a character for whom “taking risks and living in the moment is the only life he’s good at” (Gross). Here’s Brenner’s reply:
“…the bomb suit, putting that on. I had no idea what that would be like, but there’s a certain walk that came out of that. There’s a certain mentality and philosophies that sort of came to my mind about how peaceful and almost beautifully poetic that is inside the helmet, and outside is chaos…. I definitely wouldn’t have chosen to have it be a fake suit, even if I had that choice, because the suit was such a big part of that character, a massive part of that movie – visually, and then just physically. If it was a fake suit without all the Kevlar in it, I would have not walked the way I walked. I wouldn’t be able to move the way I moved in it. Something very sort of lunar.…” (Ibid.)
I immediately thought of the armored suits in Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959).
RAH’s Stranger in a Strange Land was one of the first scifi books I read as a juvenile, and after that I immediately devoured everything by him which I could find, eventually amassing an award-winning collection of his corpus. (If only I could afford on my meager public school teacher’s salary the $1500 for the recently published Virginia editions, I’d be collecting still). So instead of grabbing my Kindle, I simply pulled Troopers off my shelf.
Rereading Starship Troopers reminded me of what I both like and dislike about RAH’s novels. What I like is that he has an uncanny ability to put you so deep in the mind of a character that you are able to completely suspend disbelief about the incredible world into which Heinlein has dropped you headlong like an trooper in his capsule, and the verisimilitude of his voice also allows you to swallow multiple paragraphs of technical detail like a spoonful of sugar, leaving you wondering when the medicine’s coming. Forgive the following long quote, but it illustrates my point (which means you won’t even notice or mind how long it is), plus it describes the suit (which is what I really want to talk about):
“An M.I. lives by his suit the way a K-9 man lives by and with and on his doggie partner. Powered armor is one-half the reason we call ourselves ‘mobile infantry’ instead of just ‘infantry.’ (The other half are the spaceships that drop us and the capsules we drop in.) Our suits give us better eyes, better ears, stronger backs (to carry heavier weapons and more ammo), better legs, better intelligence (‘intelligence’ in the military meaning; a man in a suit can be just as stupid as anybody else – only he had better not be), more firepower, greater endurance, less vulnerability.
A suit isn’t a space suit – although it can serve as one. It is not primarily armor – although the Knights of the Round Table were not armored as well as we are. It isn’t a tank – but a single M.I. private could take on a squadron of those things and knock them off unassisted if anybody was silly enough to put tanks against M.I. A suit is not a ship but it can fly, a little – on the other hand neither spaceships nor atmosphere craft can fight against a man in a suit except by saturation bombing of the area he is in (like burning down a house to get a flea!) Contrariwise we can do many things that no ship – air, submersible, or space – can do….
Maybe they’ll be able to do without us someday. Maybe some mad genius with myopia, a bulging forehead, and a cybernetic mind will devise a weapon that can go down a hole, pick out the opposition, and force it to surrender or die – without killing that whole gang of our own people they’ve got imprisoned down there. I wouldn’t know; I’m not a genius, I’m an M.I. In the meantime, until they build a machine to replace us, my mates can handle the job – and I might be some help on it, too….
But while they have not yet built a machine to replace us, they’ve surely thought up some honeys to help us. The suit, in particular….